Are We Criminals?
Renee Rod is a Grant Writer, Licensed Architect, and Urban Planner who lives in Chicago. In her spare time, she enjoys designing houses and writing short stories. Her stories have been featured in Word Catalyst Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and The Write Place At the Write Time.
As each individual ahead of me succumbed to the humiliation and fled with bowed head, I methodically shuffled my rear end across the carpet, ever mindful of nasty rug burns on my cotton pants. After the fortieth minute passed, the only possession remaining in my hand was a neatly folded white paper with a directive from the state government. I had already finished perusing the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times and counting aloud the number of other pathetic souls unfortunate enough to be forced to wake up early on a Saturday morning in the hope of landing first in the queue.
My stomach growled, as I had erroneously assumed that this would be a quick errand, and consequently failed to take a precaution. As additional bodies piled into the cozy, windowless room, the air became stale and sticky. The perspiration stained shirt odors prevailed, and I coughed and cleared my throat just to catch my breath. With my hand subtly covering my nose so as not to give the impression that I believed I was too good to be here, I surveyed the room. The United Nations surrounded me. White faces. Black faces. Young adults. Middle aged adults. Fat people. Thin people. Short people. Tall people. The line stretched out the door and down the dark hall past the Comcast storefront. On this Saturday it was faster to file a complaint about the wretched, intermittent internet and cable service than it was to get fingerprinted.
Why was everyone here? What was written on their folded white sheets? Did scofflaws sit arm to arm among us?
As I stared at the moldy edges of the ceiling tiles, I attempted to rationalize the requirement that compelled my husband and me to join scores of others in the cramped quarters, but I was unable. We are two of the most honest people on the planet, often to a fault. One year we noticed a mistake on our property tax bill, where the Assessor's Office listed only one bathroom in our house. So we promptly corrected the misinformation on the form and added one bathroom to our listing, fully aware that our property taxes would increase. By our own action, we would continue for years to hand over to the government even more of our hard earned cash. Many people called us "stupid," but we called ourselves "honest." Wasn't that enough? Was this necessary?
As the sixtieth minute passed, a shrill voice jarred me from my trance.
I untangled my legs, which were entwined like a pretzel, and my knees wobbled, as I raised my body off the knobby carpet. I felt every ache in my nearly four decade old muscles and joints.
A large boned woman stood upright with her hands on her hips. Her eyes squinted, but the rest of her face remained frozen, as she practically stared right through me.
"Next!" the technician yelled again, her voice increasingly louder.
I unfolded my white paper, situated it gently on the edge of her desk, and immediately pulled back my outstretched arm. She rapidly scanned the paper and tossed it on top of a gigantic stack of forms. She grabbed my finger and shoved it into the wet black ink. Twisting my finger with brute force, she appeared as if she was rolling lumps out of pie crust dough.
"Are we criminals?" I whispered to my husband, as I shrugged my shoulders.
"It sure feels that way," he mumbled, as he prepared his finger.
* * *
Three weeks later I had finally put the miserable experience behind me when I was greeted by a thin envelope in the mail. What business did the FBI have with me? I ripped open the envelope and yanked out a one paragraph letter.
We are sorry to inform you that we were unable to read your fingerprints. Please get fingerprinted again as soon as possible.
My jaw almost fell into my lap, and I gasped. Surely this was a mistake. I raised my fingers a few inches in front of my eyes and studied every swirling pattern on each fingertip.
"I'm a human, and humans have fingerprints. How could they not read them?" I shouted to an empty room, as I threw my arms into the air.
The thought of spending another day in a room jammed with fifty-eight of my new close friends caused me to nearly regurgitate my breakfast. I was more upset about having to endure the endless line and degradation than about the possibility that I did not even exist.
I raced to the agency, as I was incredulous and wanted assurances that I was human. With the new letter in my hand, I marched to the receptionist desk. In the slim chance that I would be ushered to the beginning of the line, I preyed on the young woman's sympathy and informed her that I had prior problems with my fingerprints. While she steered me away from the front of the line, she did guide me into the middle, which was a coup.
After thirty minutes, the infamous "Next!" bounced from wall to wall and startled me, as my eyes had closed and my head bobbed wildly while falling asleep in a standing position sandwiched between two fetid men.
"I need to be refingerprinted," I declared, sliding my letter on top of an overflowing box dangling off the technician's desk.
"Then you know what to do," she crowed, as she rolled her eyes.
As she squeezed my finger and pressed it into the ink, I asked, "Do you know why my fingerprints were illegible?"
She eased up temporarily on my finger.
"Sometimes prints don't show up if they've been worn down." She paused. "Like after years of hard manual labor. You see it with construction workers . . . bricklayers."
"Hmm," I whispered. The most manual labor I have done over the years is washing my hair and cutting my toenails.
She returned to squashing my finger.
"Hopefully your prints will work this time, so you don't have to come back for a third time." She chuckled and smirked.
I looked down at my shoes and shook my head.
"I guess I would have made a good criminal," I mumbled.
* * *
I scanned the fourteen page form, which weighed heavily in my hand. Social security number. Driver's license number. Height. Eye color. References to contact. Authorization to conduct periodic checks of our driving records. The FBI would not stop until it knew everything about us.
As I answered each question, one stood out and intrigued me. Have you ever been convicted of other than a minor traffic violation?
According to the FBI, I could have no drug offense, no offense affecting the public health and safety, no offense against any property, and no offense against a person. While I had no violations, I wondered about those who did. Certainly they would be treated differently.
* * *
My hands began to tremble and my lips quivered upon hearing the knock on the front door. Would we pass the test?
The agency official arrived with the requisite items—pen, checklist, and clipboard—and strutted directly to the smoke detector. She closed her eyes slightly and raised her ear to the ceiling. A chorus of staggered, high pitched, beeping tones echoed throughout the house, as we activated every smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector. We uncovered every fire extinguisher as if we were searching for gold. We pointed out the concealed medications and cleaning supplies, which were hidden like wrapped presents before Christmas. And we guided her through an exhibit of safety items as if we were salespeople at Babies R Us.
Escape ladder. Stair gates. Window blind locks. Bifold door safety locks. Door knob covers. Stove knob covers. Outlet covers. And covers for anything that could possibly be covered. Our residence was a cross between a children's hospital wing and a bomb shelter.
As she departed, she clasped our hands and declared, "We'll get back to you."
* * *
After a few months of existing in limbo and surviving the humiliation and intrusion into our privacy, our fingerprints, driver's licenses, medical histories, life histories, and home visit were finally approved by the FBI and government officials. We could finally become parents.
Well, let me clarify. We were treated like criminals to obtain authorization for the opportunity to pay thousands of dollars and be placed on a lengthy waiting list where a birthmother would choose among hundreds of couples like us. And there was no guarantee that we would ever be chosen.
As honest and law abiding citizens, we were forced to endure such scrutiny just to be cleared to adopt a child and to become parents. Criminals, however, are not checked and need not pass a test to determine their ability to be good parents. If I had been convicted of a crime, I could have as many biological children as I wanted, and no one would ask questions; but I could not adopt a child. If I had a biological child, no child safety police would have met me at my doorstep the day after I arrived home from the hospital with my baby.
But yet we were held to a different standard.
* * *
On June 24, 2010, a woman in Salinas, California was high on methamphetamine and attempted to sell her six month old baby for twenty-five dollars outside Walmart. She even breast fed the infant while under the influence. She treated her own child as if it was an antique phonograph at a garage sale, yet she was allowed to parent.
In 2004, four percent of women in state prisons, three percent of women in federal prisons, and six percent of women in local jails were pregnant at the time of admittance, and they were permitted to become parents.
Even incarcerated mothers and their babies are kept together in the Washington State Residential Parenting Program. And similarly, several states operate long term prison nurseries, which sanction children from birth to eighteen months living next to their mothers.
All of these women enjoy the freedom of procreating and parenting children, but my privacy was scrutinized and I was treated like a criminal by the FBI and the state for dreaming of becoming a mother.
* * *
My husband and I are currently on "parole." Every six months we are required to have a home visit by the state Department of Children and Family Services even though we still have no child and may never be lucky enough to adopt one. It was as if we had committed a crime and now we needed routine supervision. Even criminals who receive an unconditional release from jail never meet again with any officers of the court.
But yet, because my uterus does not function properly, we are on "parole supervision."
* * *
Shaking my head, I glance at the calendar and flip the page from June to July. It has been six months. I enter the storage room and reach for the rag to clean the dust balls off the stove knob covers.